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Aug 11

Written by: Jayanthi
Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Authentic Journey of Lisa: India it is!

My So-called Jeevitham
by Lisa C. James

Part 2 of 3 India it is!
(Links to part 1 and 3 at the end.)


My Decision

A tough three months later, some news arrived from India and dad needed to go in order to take care of some property-related issues. As I overheard mom and dad discussing the details, I decided that this was it. This was my chance to redeem myself. Also, it was a chance to escape. God was not only showing me a window, he was showing me an escape hatch! I needed to leave the shame of my failure behind and start all over again. I couldn’t do it here. Everything was too raw and I knew that my parents and I would battle about everything since I had now broken my contract with them as their daughter. I would go to India and study. In a way, I thought I had nothing left to lose. This was my only chance. And I guessed that if it didn’t work, Chachen and Amachi (my grandparents), would be more than happy to let me help out on the farm. I really did like the paddy fields and taking the cows out to pasture. Who knows? I might even get married to a rubber tree estate tycoon, I joked to myself half-heartedly.

When I told my parents, they were surprised but were okay about it. I am not completely sure why. On the one hand, my parents were planning to move back to India when they retired and wanted my brother and me to get used to the idea (in fact, this was the reason I most frequently cited about my India study sojourn) but on the other, though they never said this to me, it would be good way to get me back in touch with being Indian. Indian girls weren’t as impossible as this selfish, disobedient Indian- American brat that they had the misfortune of raising. It was March. We would leave for India in May.

As the days approached, I became more and more fearful. I didn’t know if I would get into college in India considering I had just failed my last semester. What if the kids didn’t like me? What if I didn’t speak Malayalam well enough? Where would I live? The future was a hazy mess. My dad had a sister, who was a nun, in Bangalore whom he contacted and she sent us prospectus’ from a couple of different colleges. There were two all-girl schools and one co-ed one. I wasn’t too sure about how Indian boys were at that age so I hoped I would get into one of the all-girls colleges.

In May, as we waited to board the plane, my dad pulled me aside and said I didn’t have to do this; that I could change my mind; that I could go to school here. However, it was too late to turn back. I was adamant. Going to India to study was the first decision I had made in my life that was my own. I would be shaming myself and God if I didn’t follow through. And, in time, my parents would be able to put their trust in me again to make my own choices.

After we arrived in India, one of the first things we did was take an overnight car-trip to Bangalore. I suppose this was necessary as I had missed all the college application deadlines and needed to apply in person. As we drove into Bangalore, I was utterly dismayed. Where was this cosmopolitan city I heard about? Where were the skyscrapers and the IBM building I wondered as I stared at the auto-rickshaws and cows competing for road space as we drove down Hosur Road towards Koramangala. Yikes! What was I thinking? I left Texas for this?

We stayed a couple of nights at St. John’s Hospital hostel where my aunt, the nun, lived. She (we’ll call her Sr. Auntie from this point on) was a nurse at the hospital there. Looking back, I realize how lucky I was. It was really good to have a nun/nurse/aunt in Bangalore. Especially one that was pushy-just-short-of-annoying. She was able to get things done that my dad and I probably wouldn’t have even attempted.

Bangalore is a college town and so there were colleges everywhere. It was difficult to get into science/math/engineering schools but the liberal arts courses and commerce courses were still accessible even at the very late date I was applying. We visited all three campuses that my Sr. Auntie had mentioned. I was immediately taken by the lush green lawns and manicured appearance of Christ College but it was still wasn’t my first choice. After getting waiting list notices from the other two, however, Christ College was the only place for me.

Christ College, Bangalore, India

Desi, na?

I stayed at a hostel run by nuns just behind the Christ College campus. There were three such hostels side by side and ours was the furthest from the main road. Most of the girls at the hostels were from Kerala and spoke Malayalam and English. A couple of the girls were of Malayali heritage but had lived in Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates before they came to study in India. There were also a few girls from some of the northern states in India. Of course, I was the only American.

Super. Duper. Scary. I didn’t know how to act. I didn’t know whether I should speak to the other girls in Malayalam or English. I didn’t know if I should tidy up the 6-bed room I was in. Could I go outside by myself? Could I go on the terrace? Most of the other girls had not arrived so there was nothing much to do nor many people to talk to. I mostly wrote in my journal. Things that were new to me included: the mosquito net, the zero-watt bulb (had voltage so low that it was as close to “zero” as it could get without actually being off), the little cubby hole in the bathroom that led to an incinerator, the mop-stick (a wooden t-shaped tool that you would hold upside down and drape a wet rag on to mop the floor), frying an egg using candle light and a tiffin, and finally, if the tiffin got too hot, honey for the burns.

The first few months were difficult. My social cues were all off. People wanted you to be nosy and pry into their affairs. As you can tell by the very words I used just now to describe that, I was not used to that nor did I like it. One of my friends said I was being too impersonal and that when I returned to America, I should be careful because Americans wouldn’t like it. It’s funny now because I think being impersonal is an American thing and almost inherent in my personality. At least, until I get to know someone.

Language was a big question mark. I felt I needed to speak in Malayalam because I was the foreigner. However, they told me that they liked when I spoke in English. However, I thought I was being a snob when I did speak English. Like a deer caught in the headlights, for a while, I was too stunned to speak when someone asked me a question. Sometimes I would just smile and simply say nothing. I felt like a computer that was trying to process too much information at one time. System. Overload. Abort. Abort. Smiley face.

Slowly but surely, I made friends. While everyone acknowledged me as “different”, it was difficult when they looked at me and they saw me as Indian and not American. As I soon learned, I was very “American” on the inside.

College life was a little different than hostel life. I felt more accepted at the college. However, I got off to a rocky start when I got lost on the first day of class. My orientation was in room “Two-Naught-One”. For the life of me, I didn’t get why it was room “Two-not-one”. Why would the principal go out of his way to say it was room 2 and not room 1? Had there been a room change? As I searched around the corridors for a single digit number, all I saw were three digit room numbers.  Only then did it dawn on me that a “not” or a “nacht” or a”knot” was some kind of secret Indian number. And finally, thinking not only out of the box but as far from the box as possible, I just imagined that a “knot” kind of looking like a zero. I didn’t find out the real meaning until much later: “naught” is commonly used to represent zero….kind of like how Americans say “Oh” for zero sometime. Five-Oh-One jeans, for example. Anyway, the whole “naught”-getting-the-number thing was so frightening that first day. If I couldn’t understand a room number, what else would I not understand? It scared me because it seemed an omen of things to come.

I was majoring in journalism, psychology, and English. I was glad that the course didn’t force me to choose just one subject. I wished American colleges were like that: letting us pick three majors. The classrooms were small and consisted of rows of benches and tables. When the lecturer entered, you had to stand up. When spoken to, you had to stand up. When the lecturer left, you had to stand up. (Of course, you have to stand up to leave the classroom anyway).

The whole lecturer-reverence was a little strange to me. There was no student-teacher collaboration here. You listened and wrote notes. Teacher knew best. There were internal exams but the only exams that counted were the final public exams. Needless to say, no one really studied until exam time rolled around. Also, you were allowed to “bunk” or skip a certain number of classes a year. I got my fair share in that first year there. It was most enjoyable and I didn’t feel the least bit guilty as I hung out on Brigade Road or MG Road getting profiteroles (in italics here only because it is French word) from Nilgiri’s or catching the latest Hollywood movie. 

I looked for anything American those first few months. There were burger places and pizza places and Italian food places but they were not quite the same as the ones I had been used to back home. Nilgiri’s had some “American” groceries but they were so expensive! Once in a while, I’d get some brownies to treat myself. I remember being so desperate to talk to other Americans that I went up to some white girls at the bank and started a random conversation with them. Turns out they were British. Of all the luck! I wanted to hear the American accent so badly that I had my brother tape-record commercials off of American radio and send it to me. Even though everyone spoke in English, it was British English and sometimes I had no clue what was being said, a la what I call the “naught” syndrome.

Exams were difficult for me. I was used to bullshitting my way through American essay questions and made the mistake of trying to do the same on the exams in India.  Padma Ma’am (Yes, I still remember her name) gave me a 27 out of 100 on the first psychology exam I took. I asked her why and she very bluntly told me that I didn’t know how to write an exam in India. She recommended that I should go ask my friends. I was crestfallen. Here I was thinking I was a bad-ass American with uber-awesome English skills who had a 3.something GPA, ranked in the top 10% in high school, and could-no-way-mess-up-on-an-Indian-exam. Talk about dropping me a few notches. Immediately humbled, I went about learning from my classmates who, fortunately, for me, were more than helpful.

As far as I knew, I was the only American on campus. There was no international
student center or advisor back then so I was pretty much on my own. Fortunately, my cadre of comrades was friendly and supportive. Most of my classmates were westernized. They were all pretty savvy to American and British popular culture. Maybe it was because most of them had grown up in Bangalore (which turns out was pretty cosmopolitan especially towards the central hub of the MG Road-Brigade Road area).

One day in class, I made the mistake of mentioning that I liked Bally Sagoo (a British musician that remixed Indian songs and was a favorite amongst us ABCDs in high school) and one of my classmates sneered in disgust. He couldn’t believe I was from America and liked such rubbish. He personally enjoyed Black Sabbath and, was I living in a cave? Hello? It was an eye-opening, albeit short, conversation that soon opened me up to the Indian college band circuit. I became the Indian equivalent of a groupie, and as a couple of my friends were in bands, I was soon rocking out at various college music fests. Looking back, it is ironic that it took me a trip to India to discover the roots of classic American rock and metal. It was like the Beatles had gone to India to find Enlightenment and I had gone to India to find the Beatles (and their contemporaries). I had heard of these bands before but hearing my friends belting out these tunes with such passion humbled me and gave me a new appreciation for American music, the music I had taken for granted.


==End Part 2=

Part 1 of 3: From U.S. to India - The Struggles of Identifying with India While Growing up in America

Part 2 of 3: India it is!

Part 3 of 3: Fighting Stereotypes and Embracing Identity

About the Author: Lisa C. James
Lisa C. James was born and raised in the United States. After completing high school, she attended a university in India. Her life was changed forever by that experience and it has been a cultural adventure ever since.  She currently resides in California where she works at a university assisting new international students. She enjoys her present and keenly looks forward to the future.


The previous interview in this series: The Authentic Journey of Barbara: An American in Italy

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Updated February 2011


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